score and latest updates from the Six Nations
After beating France in an all-time classic last time out, many would assume Ireland’s trip to Rome should be a no-brainer and only a minor obstacle as Andy Farrell’s men give what many are predicting a well-deserved Grand Slam comes closer. But the Six Nations and Italy are no longer the whipping boys, as their performance against France in round one showed. Add to that a new pair of starting defenders for the Irish and the reasons not to take the hosts lightly are becoming ever more important.
Ireland manager Farrell insists the seven changes he has made for tonight’s game are far from an indication he is underestimating Italy’s challenge in Rome, adding that the rookie half-back duo Ross Byrne and Craig Casey fully deserve the opportunity to helm the show in Rome.
Byrne will fill in for injured Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton in the No 10 jersey, while Casey comes from Munster for fellow countryman Conor Murray. The young pair combined well from the bench in victories against Wales and France in the first two rounds of the tournament and Farrell expects more of the same at the Stadio Olimpico.
“You’ve earned the right to start,” Farrell said. “And from what we’ve seen so far, it’s been a good start to the week.
“The preparation has been great and yes they seem ready for it.”
Referring to Byrne, he continued: “He was amazing. He earned the right to lead the team and translate everything we saw in training into a performance that has authority and takes his team with it.”
Byrne feared his Test career could be over before returning from 20 months in the international wilderness to kick the crucial penalty in Ireland’s autumn win over Australia.
Only two of his previous 16 caps have been won as a regular, while Casey, who made his debut in Italy two years ago, has only started once for his country.
Hooker Ronan Kelleher, Lock Iain Henderson, No 8 Jack Conan and center Bundee Aki were also recalled to face the Azzurri.
Only two of the changes will go through, with Sexton and Tadhg Beirne ruled out due to injuries sustained in the 32-19 win over the French.
Farrell dismissed the notion that he shook things up “for the sake of it” and expects his Grand Slam chasing team to put on their best performance yet in the competition.
“We’ve been dating for a couple of weeks now, so certainly people are up to speed,” he said.
“People wouldn’t have been chosen if they weren’t in the right place.
“We’re not just turning things around for the sake of it, we’re turning things around because we believe it’s a strong team for us, for this game and for the future too.
“I don’t think there are that many changes to be fair.
“The reality is that this is our third game of this competition and we expect it to be our best performance of this competition. That’s how it should be and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Stay here for all the pre-game build and action from the Eternal City.